If Carlsberg did football stadiums, they wouldn’t be basing their design on Dalymount Park or other League Of Ireland strongholds around the country, they’d probably look to some of the more glamorous football cathedrals around Europe to draw inspiration for their perfect idea of where football should be played.
The Santiago Bernabeu, the Camp Nou, the Olympiastadion and the Allianz Arena are just some of the stadiums that spring to mind when thinking of colossal footballing structures. Glorious amphitheatres that naturally draw the ire of lower league football supporters from around the world, the likes of which League of Ireland fans could only dream of.
It’s safe to say that when Carlsberg do football stadiums, they don’t have the Carlisle Grounds, the UCD Bowl or Hunky Dorys Park in mind.
Unlike their lavish counterparts, these stadiums don’t have the state of the art architecture, the luxurious corporate suites or the multi-storied stands, they don’t even have four stands around the pitch. The Carlisle Grounds didn’t even have four structurally sound walls around their ground up until a month ago, as locals would routinely set their gaze on Bray Wanderers, the Seagulls, for a few minutes behind temporary fencing before continuing to walk their dog and ironically go look at actual Seagulls.
The League Of Ireland simply does not have the infrastructure, the quality nor the financial strength to contend with any of the top teams from across Europe but what they do have is fans – marginalised, ridiculed yet fanatical fans.
Supporters who travel the country to sing, watch and interact as part of a small group of people that love their club and love the people that are a part of it.
Supporters that drink pints with players, supporters that raffle off meat trays and signed jerseys to raise money for their clubs and supporters that are proud of their communities.
They say prisons reflect the biggest faults in our society, and they do. The overwhelming amount of prisoners in Ireland never sit formal examinations, struggle with literacy skills and have at some stage or another used hard drugs. They reflect the failure of our society to tackle the big issues but conversely football clubs reflect the best parts of Irish society, the part we all love, the unyielding sense of loyalty and belonging that we share with others, young and old.
When I watched Bohemians take on Galway United in the second round of the FAI Cup recently I couldn’t help but notice the emptiness and the bareness of a stadium that once hosted Bob Marley and an international game against Italy that drew a crowd of nearly 40,000.
These days Bohemians are drawing closer to the hundreds rather than the thousands and it shows. The old “Shed End”, now called “The Des Kelly Carpets Stand”, is completely empty as are the terraces and the second stand. Unsanctioned graffiti is visibly clear below the closed off second stand and grass grows wildly from the terraces, but in the main stand Bohemians’ fans gather and wait for Keith Long’s charges to take the field.
There is a nervous energy around the stadium, the Gypsies have no wins from their last seven games and even worse have been held scoreless since the 1st of April.
But with their backs against the wall, Bohs come out firing and take the game to Galway and are rewarded for their efforts with an early Paddy Kavanagh goal.
Recent Tunisia call-up Ayman Ben Mohamed is running riot down the left wing, Jake Kelly is creating through the middle and the team look genuinely enthused and energetic.
The fans are giving the referee a hard time, as expected, and they were within their right to given Alex Byrne’s reckless challenge on Kavangh, but decisions aside they respond positively to what they’ve seen on the field. They rise, applaud and sing “Stand Up For The Super Bohs” as they appreciate the effort being displayed on the field.
“Stand Up For The Insert Team” is a common chant around the country but given the ineptitude of Bohs in previous games it feels different here. It sweeps through the stand akin to a Mexican wave and takes a hold of the supporters but it represents what is great about League Of Ireland fan bases: loyalty.
Zero goals in seven games is a horrible situation to be in as a team and for a manager, and in most leagues it is a sackable offence, but in Phibsborough it seems like business as usual in terms of attendance.
In similar circumstances across the Irish Sea, but in a world of dollars compared to pennies, Manchester United’s share price continues to drop after an anaemic season in front of goal, while at Dalymount it’s certainly not welcomed but it’s seemingly not the end of the world either.
The reality is in north Dublin, Manchester United’s inefficiency in front of goal is a much bigger problem for football fans than Bohemians’ perils. It’s chalk and cheese.
Football is the most popular sport in the country but you wouldn’t know it if you attended a League Of Ireland game, you’d think the opposite, especially when the RDS across the Liffey is hosting a sold out semi-final between Leinster and Ulster.
But the harsh reality for the modern Irish footballer is that unless you’re playing top flight football in England or Scotland you’ll barely register a pulse with the average Irish football fan, never mind the average GAA fan.
The crossover between both sports is arguably less divisive than previous decades, but as one high ranking Bohemians club official put it to me, ‘It’s hard to compete with the Dubs when they’re pulling crowds of 80, 000 and we’re getting 800.’
Bohemians aren’t trying to compete with the high flying Dubs, they couldn’t and, realistically, never will, but what they are trying to do, like all clubs, is capture the attention of football fans in Ireland.
With an increasing lack of Irish players at top four clubs in England, and no Irish players at the widely supported Manchester United or Liverpool, there’s no better time for Irish fans to support their local club.
You won’t be exposed to the same level of football in the Premier League, nor will you see a wealth of internationals on the field, but what you will see are a core group of fans that not only love the game, but also the clubs that are producing the Seamus Coleman’s, Wes Hoolahan’s and Shane Long’s of this world.
Rob Lyons, Pundit Arena